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World 'off-track' in effort to limit warming, report says

Reuters File / Reuters

This file photo shows a view of a coal-burning power plant during daybreak in Xiangfan, central China's Hubei province.

Global emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide notched up 1.4 percent to 31.6 gigatonnes in 2012, a move in the opposite direction of an international climate goal to limit global warming, the International Energy Agency said in a report released Monday

Instead of limiting warming to a long-term rise of no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius), the report said the world is currently on a path toward a rise of as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5.3 degree Celsius) above pre-industrial levels. 

Such a rise would come "with potentially disastrous implications in terms of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and the huge economic and social costs that these can bring," Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said at the report's launch. 

"In short, we are drifting off track, and global negotiations are not expected to yield agreement before 2015, and to be enforced after 2020."

Ratcheting down emissions
In the report, Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map, the energy agency outlines four steps the world can take to ratchet down emissions between now and 2020 and keep the door open to limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The steps include:

  • Increased energy efficiency measures in buildings, industry and transport;
  • Strict curbs on construction of new coal-fired power plants while increasing the share of renewables and use of natural gas, the cleanest burning fossil fuel;
  • Reduction in methane emissions from the oil and gas industries;
  • And a partial phase out of fossil fuel subsidies 

Delaying action to move toward the 2 degree Celsius target until 2020 will result in substantial additional costs to the energy sector, the International Energy Agency noted. For example, if no steps are taken until 2020, $5 trillion in additional clean energy investments will be required.

Target a distraction
The focus of trying to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius "is a distraction," Roger Pielke, Jr., a science policy expert at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who writes frequently climate change, told NBC News in an email.

"Rather than talk about fanciful scenarios for the future, we'd be better served by looking realistically at short term options," he said.

To meet the target of 2 degrees Celsius, he noted, will require "that the carbon dioxide emitted for every dollar of economic activity has to decrease by 5 percent per year, or more, for many decades. Right now the world is at about 0 to 1 percent per year."

Realistic options, he noted, include switching to natural gas from coal for power generation, which is already occurring in the U.S. and largely responsible for the country's 200 million ton drop in emissions.

"More rapid deployment of nuclear can do even more," Pielke Jr. said.

Uneven emissions
The rise in emissions of carbon dioxide is uneven around the world. In addition to the drop in the U.S., emissions also declined 50 million tons in Europe.

In Japan, emissions rose by 70 million tons due to a switch to more fossil fuels following the shutdown of nuclear plants in the country following the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

In China, emissions rose 3.8 percent, or 300 million tons. This was the largest jump in 2012, but one of the smallest increases in the past decade for the fast-growing nation thanks to wider adoption of renewable energy and improvements in energy intensity, according to the International Energy Agency.

"Unfortunately, the combination of the late U.S. entry into the emissions reduction race and China's continued increases in emissions mean that the likelihood of avoiding a 2-degree warming is (in my view) less than 50-50 and shrinking rapidly," Michael Oppenheimer, a climate policy expert at Princeton University, told NBC News in an email.

"And that's too bad, because if these two countries decided to make a grand bargain on climate change, the rest of the large-emitter countries would likely follow suit."

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.